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21st-Century Poetry Poems of love, loss and resistance

LOUIS ARAGON (1897-1982) was one of the greatest French poets of the 20th century. In the 1920s, he was one of the leaders of the Dadaist and Surrealist movements in Paris and, in the following decade, he edited the anti-fascist journal Commune and the French Communist Party newspaper Ce Soir.

 

During the German occupation he was active in the Resistance and after WWII he edited Les Lettres Francaises, was elected to the PCF central committee and won the Lenin Peace Prize.

 

Aragon wrote over 50 books, including Les Communistes, Le Creve-Coeur, Cantique a Elsa, Les Yeux d’Elsa, Le Musee Grevin and Le Roman Inacheve. Many of his poems have been set to music, notably by George Brassens, Isabelle Aubret, Leo Ferre and Jean Ferrat. He was nominated four times for the Nobel Prize.

 

Although Aragon’s poetry was well-known and admired in this country during the second world war, his work is largely forgotten these days and mostly unavailable.

 

Les Chambres, translated by John Manson (Smokestack Books, £9.99), was Aragon’s last full-length book. First published in 1969, it was a gift to his wife, the writer Elsa Triolet, for whom he wrote so many extraordinary love poems. She died the following year.

 

The book is a beautiful and melancholy meditation on grief and time, love, and loneliness. Obliged to face life without Elsa, Aragon’s days are suddenly purposeless, a “labyrinth of hours” in which “only the chairs speak, shrouded in shadow.”

 

Life is drained of its colours — “hazy and grey deserted dumb this day blind and empty — and the dawn is a “grey morning in this great sky of glass, a grey morning bereft of you.” A “wordless” Paris is suddenly empty — “I would never have believed Paris capable of this day.”

 

It is an intensely lyrical work, a public outpouring of private grief and a retreat from the outside world. A great book by a great writer.

 

Although Asher Hoyles has been performing her work for many years in schools, poetry festivals and prisons all over Britain, incredibly Raise Up the Low: Bring Down the Mighty (Hansib, £9.99) is her first collection.

 

Her models are Nelson Mandela, Bob Marley, Aretha Franklin, Bessie Smith, Rosa Parks and William Blake. Her subjects are growing up in Chapeltown in the 1970s, moving to London, the miners' strike, the wars in Iraq, the BNP, the banking crisis, austerity and her experiences working with special needs students in east London.

 

The book includes two CDs of Hoyles performing her work, loud and clear. It is definitely worth buying for such poems as Put up a Fight, Dance in Your Yard, A Nation of Bankers, Respect Mudda Nature, Flowers and Talking Book — “Reading a book is a political act/I wish someone had’ve taught me that/I wish I had’ve known of the sacrifices made/So that I could simply sit, turn the page.”

 

Edited by Grim Chip and Mike Quille, Poetry on the Picket Line (Culture Matters, £5) brings together poems by a dozen poets who regularly read on demonstrations and picket lines.

 

With a foreword by Phil Jupitus and contributions by Candy Udwin and Clara Paillard from the PCS about the group’s involvement in the National Gallery and Picturehouse cinema disputes in London, it includes some great poems by Michelle Masden, Lizzy Turner, Nadia Drews and Chip himself.

 

These are his lines on Brexit. “I don’t want to take my country back,/I want to take it forward,” while Tim Wells is equally forthright on the commodification of culture. “They’ve slapped/a price on it./But they can’t buy it.”

 

And this is the Thirteenth Commandment according to Janine Booth. “I’d rather take a solemn pledge to never drink more wine/Or place my genitalia in the mouth of a dead swine/become a Shadow Minister, then run off and resign/Yes, I’d rather scrape the barrel’s arse than cross a picket line/I’d rather turn my bedroom to a Justin Bieber shrine/Or use an Off-Peak Travelcard at twenty-five past nine/Send Iain Duncan Smith a secret, scented Valentine/But I’d never, no not ever, ever cross a picket line.”

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